The Scots; a genetic journey

The Scots The Scots; a genetic journey, by Alistair Moffat and James F Wilson, Birlinn, 2011 ISBN: 978-1-84158-941-1


In November 2009 I was helping to steward at the first Lennoxlove Book Festival in Haddington. One of the events was a talk given by Alistair Moffat and Dr James F Wilson on Scotland’s earliest history, as evidenced by genetic analysis, archaeology and linguistics. It was a fascinating double-act, and during the course of it they said they were collaborating on a book about the subject. This is it, and I’ve been enjoyably immersed in it since it arrived on my doorstep last week.

Everyone has in their DNA, in their very being, traces of their origins and evolution, in the form of genetic markers, sequences of ‘letters’ in the DNA double helix. We all have mitochondrial DNA, inherited from our mothers, and their mothers, in an unbroken line to the origin of our species. In addition males have markers in their Y-chromosomes which link back through the paternal line. Our genes mutate and evolve over time, and genetic scientists like James Wilson can suggest something about the age of origin of our individual markers. The geographical frequencies of their occurrence can also tell us how our ancestors migrated and spread.

During the last Ice Age, which peaked around 18,000 BC, Scotland was covered in thick ice. No plants grew here, and so animals and people were absent from the land. As the planet started to warm, and the ice to retreat, there is archaeological evidence for small bands of hunter-gatherers moving with the herds of grazers over the grassy plains of Doggerland, now under the North Sea, and into southern England. From about 10,000 BC people began to spread into Scotland. Evidence for a timber house, dated around 8,000 BC, has been found at East Barns, near Dunbar, by far the oldest building so far discovered in Scotland. Genetic markers from these early people suggest they came from ‘refugia’ in the western Pyrenean region.

Agriculture developed after 9,000 BC in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East and spread gradually throughout Europe. There were agricultural communities in Abereenshire and Perthshire by 3,900 BC. DNA evidence for the movement of peoples suggests two main migration routes – around the Atlantic coasts, and following Europe’s major rivers.

Linguistic studies point to the predominance of Celtic languages – Welsh, Gaelic and Irish. The stone circles of Scotland date from 2,900 to 2,300 BC, give or take a century or two. Around 2,000 BC a characteristic type of pottery has given its name to the Beaker people, also associated with the beginings of the Bronze Age.

Between 2,500 and 1,500 BC small movements of people along trading routes carried them from France and Iberia to Ireland and western Scotland, and it’s here that one of ‘my’ genetic markers may have originated. I have no idea how or when these remote ancestors of mine moved to the family homeland of Buchan, where they worked on the land until moving to the cities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh in the 19th century. It’s staggering to have my family tree extended in this way to around 2,000 BC. The Picts have a distinctive genetic marker, and our DNA shows the results of successive inflows, from the Vikings in the north, the Irish in the west, and the Germanic peoples in the east and south. In the Introduction there’s a telling sentence: “Every Scot is an immigrant.” Think about that one.

Unusually for a book by two very different authors, the writing is seamless, and wonderfully readable. This is no dry, academic account, but it’s the most fascinating and thought-provoking treatment of interlocking aspects of our early history I’ve yet read. I recommend it whole-heartedly.



About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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3 Responses to The Scots; a genetic journey

  1. I saw Alistair Moffat at Aye Write and bought the book. I am fascinated by this subject. And you are right Colin it is so well written I can almost forget it is about science.


  2. Janet says:

    I would be grateful if you might be kind enough to post a link to where I might be able to purchase the book.
    I live in Brisbane, Australia.

    With thanks and kindest regards


  3. sunnydunny says:

    Hi Janet. It’s published by Birlinn
    and it should also be available from Amazon.
    Best wishes

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